If the cinema du Judd Apatow (films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) was the beginning of a comedy-movie trend about goofy man-boys struggling to grow up, Tag has to represent some kind of ultimate nadir. I understand that many American men still have trouble processing and expressing their feelings in healthy ways. But this isn’t just a film about guys in their 40s struggling to have sex, get married, or have kids; they’re also struggling to keep up the epic game of tag they’ve been playing since they were 9 years old.
The movie, directed by Jeff Tomsic and written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, is based on a true story—a Wall Street Journal article about a whimsical game of tag that lasted 23 years. Even a brief scan of that article brings up some alarming details, like the fact that one player’s attempt to surprise another ended with his wife falling and tearing a knee ligament. Tag the movie leans into how extreme things have become over time for its heroes, staging silly chase sequences like adrenaline-fueled action scenes. But it only sporadically acknowledges just how weird and warped its premise actually is.
The rules of aggro man-tag are essentially the same as the playground variant: If the person who is “it” touches a person who is not “it,” then that second person becomes “it”—and you definitely don’t want to be “it.” In Tag, there are no winners, just a loser. Since the game is only played in the month of May, the last one tagged has a whole year to live with the shame of being “it.” Since these guidelines were devised by a bunch of 9-year-olds, no girls are allowed. But some of the characters’ wives still get involved as helpers, since sneaking up on someone takes a lot of planning and scheming.
The players are Hogan (Ed Helms), a straight-laced fellow with a much more competitive wife named Anna (Isla Fisher); the puffed-up businessman Bob (Jon Hamm); the constantly stoned Chilli (Jake Johnson); the sardonic Sable (Hannibal Buress); and the invincible Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who’s so fast and strong that he’s never, ever been tagged. The film revolves around the group’s frenzied attempts to finally tag Jerry the weekend he’s supposed to get married, thinking he’ll be more vulnerable than ever.
So, this is essentially a movie about a group of men who plot to ruin another man’s wedding, all because of a game that mostly involves them hiding in the bushes and jumping out at each other in strained attempts to make some kind of physical contact. Again and again, in voiceover, Hogan tells the viewer that the game has kept them all together for years, reciting the old aphorism, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” It’s unclear whether the film finds this particular manifestation of that idea tragic or risible.
Throughout Tag, I kept waiting for the sentimental turn—the one taken by similar R-rated comedies like Wedding Crashers that are focused on a single, obsessive activity, in which everyone finally realizes it’s time to grow up and put childish things aside. But the film never quite knows what tone it’s aiming for. At some moments, especially the ones centered on Jerry, Tag is ridiculously heightened. His supernatural ability to dodge his friends makes him seem like a sorcerer or a trickster god, able to slow down time and be in multiple places at once. Then one scene later, the film will sharply pivot to comment on the foolishness of the whole game, before just ramping the silliness back up again.
One of Tag’s biggest storytelling problems is that none of the players can ever fully trust each other, despite their supposedly deep bond. There’s always the chance that some life event (even Jerry’s impending nuptials) is a decoy designed to lure someone into a highly taggable place, so the entire plot is strangely choked with a paranoia.
This could have worked if Tag were trying to be a commentary on how much trouble men can have staying friends as their lives move forward and as they grow further apart. And in its final scenes, Tag does try to introduce that theme as it sprinkles in some last-minute, more-serious plot developments, but the effort comes too late. The ensemble is solid—everyone has been cast to type, and nobody is being asked to stretch themselves—though they’re given no chance to rise above the inherently ludicrous material. As a studio comedy, Tag is just about diverting enough to avoid total disaster, but it lacks the self-awareness and depth that might’ve turned it into a genre classic.